Once you had to sit in an empty auditorium for weeks counting millions of paper ballots to take part in a sham “audit” of the 2020 election. Now, all you need is a laptop and an internet connection.
That’s all thanks to a new digital platform recruiting volunteers to act as judge and jury over the validity of votes cast in the 2020 election.
The platform is called Polaris Recount, and anyone can now simply sign up to become a “citizen adjudicator” and look at digital images of votes cast in the election and decide if minor smudges, errant fold lines, or slightly askew ballots are evidence of some enormous sinister plot to steal the 2020 election from Donald Trump.
Digital ballot images are routinely reviewed as part of the official election audit process, typically done by automated software looking to corroborate the results of a specific race. But in the case of Polaris, the process is being conducted on a nationwide scale, with hundreds of amateur sleuths trying to prove a conspiracy theory about widespread election fraud.
Launched in late November, the platform has seen signups “gaining exponentially” in recent weeks, according to the man behind the system, who told VICE News that around 1,000 volunteers—who come from all corners of the U.S. and some even from overseas—are now spending their days looking at digital images of ballots cast in Lea County, New Mexico, which is the race currently being assessed on the platform.
And those volunteers can see just how patriotic they are compared to their peers, thanks to a leaderboard that shows everyone how many ballots they’ve counted. The current leader alone has assessed over 3,400 ballots .
“The people who start doing it, they become rabid, they become addicted,” Jeff O’Donnell, the Florida-based businessman who set up the system, told VICE News.
O’Donnell, whose LinkedIn profile lists him as CEO of software and security company Qest Development, says the platform is designed to be nonpartisan and open to volunteers from across the political spectrum who seek to boost the transparency of elections in the U.S. But it’s been clear from the start where O’Donnell’s loyalties lie.
Anyone signing up to become a volunteer citizen adjudicator has to agree to the following statement:
“By submitting this request, you acknowledge that you believe that there is a high probability that the 2020 General Election was the victim of organized fraud and that numerous races, including the Presidential race, are likely to have been wrongly certified.”
When VICE News pointed this out to O’Donnell, he changed it to something more neutral, adding that the original wording was “too strong” because he was “uncharacteristically angry when I wrote that.”
But O’Donnell’s own political leanings are very apparent. His Telegram channel is filled with pro-Trump content, alongside COVID denialism and election-fraud conspiracy theories. In November, O’Donnell appeared on a livestream with pillow salesman/Trump backer/conspiracy theorist Mike Lindell to discuss the bogus election fraud claims that Lindell has been peddling for the past 14 months.
Then in December, O’Donnell told Wisconsin lawmakers at a hearing about voter rolls in the state: “The thing that caught the eye is that there are nine that have been registered for more than 120 years, and 119,283 that have been registered between 110 and 119 years.”
While O’Donnell himself told the hearing that this discrepancy had already been explained by the state, he questioned the state’s claim, adding fuel to the conspiracy theory. And O’Donnell’s testimony was used by Trump’s “Save America” political action committee in a press release designed to promote the conspiracy that tens of thousands of Wisconsinites have been registered to vote for more than a century.
Trump’s spokesperson Liz Harrington even tweeted a portion of O’Donnell’s testimony to boost the claim:
O’Donnell says he will follow the evidence wherever it takes him. So far the Polaris system has completed the review of a single county in New Mexico, containing 300 votes. The report O’Donnell published about the review revealed a discrepancy of six votes, three of which should have gone to Joe Biden and three to Trump.
Despite this damp squib of a result, and despite 14 months of empty allegations of widespread voter fraud with no concrete evidence to back them up, when asked if he believes the election was stolen from Trump, O’Donnell told VICE News, “I think it’s likely… based on a whole bunch of numbers I’ve seen.”
O’Donnell, his Polaris Recount system, and its army of digital soldiers are just one part of a huge grassroots movement that has sprung up in the many months since former President Trump lost the election. Like the bogus audit in Arizona, citizen canvasses around the country, and efforts to change voting laws, O’Donnell’s efforts are another effort to chip away at the integrity of elections by using unproven and amateur methods to falsely claim evidence of widespread election fraud.
“They are seriously oversimplifying ballot counting, recounting, and auditing, and not taking any nuance to the process into consideration,” Michelle Shafer, a former spokesperson for voting machine company Hart Intercivic, and now an elections consultant, told VICE News.
“I don't see where they could have any actual legitimacy; it’s just more noise. States and local jurisdictions have laws and procedures that apply to recounts and audits and how they are conducted,” Shafer added.
The Polaris Recount system relies on receiving the digital ballot images that are produced by voting machines across the country. These images are stored by local election officials, and in some states they can be obtained under public records requests.
O’Donnell doesn’t obtain the images himself; he relies on other individuals of a similar mindset to obtain the files and send them.
Once he receives them, O’Donnell uploads them to the Polaris Recount platform, where they are stored and catalogued. O’Donnell says he has received images from eight states so far, with data from multiple counties in some states. In total, he has over 100,000 digital ballot images.
“I've got us probably another 10 or 11 on deck that I can't wait to get started,” O’Donnell said. “Hopefully, we're starting another one next week because Lea [County] is getting pretty close to being completed.”
To become a citizen adjudicator, all you have to do is sign up and agree to the terms and conditions. You can then watch a training video that outlines some of the issues you may run into—such as ballots being “slightly tilted” or “a rather odd line” in one of the ballot marks. You can sign up from anywhere in the world.
O’Donnell says he’s built anti-fraud measures into the platform, including the fact that each ballot is checked at least twice by two separate adjudicators. If the two results don’t match up, then it gets sent to another adjudicator.
But already several people have tried to abuse the system, and O’Donnell says he’s had to kick “four or five” people off the platform. In at least two of the cases, the volunteers were kicked off for intentionally trying to incorrectly assess the ballots.
Ultimately, the Polaris Recount system is attempting to do something that election officials around the country already do.
“Many county supervisors of elections utilize a third-party independent audit software system that has been approved by the secretary of state for use in the state,” David Stafford, the Republican supervisor of elections in Florida’s Escambia County, told VICE News.
“In short, after being scanned by the voting system, all ballots are scanned a second time on a separate and independent system and then audited,” Stafford added. “The voting system results—all contests, all ballots—are then compared against the third-party audit to verify the results. This is done in a canvassing board meeting open to the public and is governed by Florida statutes and administrative rules.”
Despite these checks, along with numerous forensic audits and recounts, in the 435 days since the 2020 election took place, there has been zero real evidence produced of widespread voter fraud and certainly nothing to reach the level described by Trump and his acolytes in the Republican Party leadership.
O’Donnell spent almost four decades working as a software engineer, and in 2019 he decided he wanted to be his own boss and founded Qest Development, in Davenport, Florida.
And despite the pressures of running a new business, O’Donnell has become so convinced by the Big Lie that he’s put everything else on hold to dedicate himself to running Polaris Recount full-time. He has “a couple of helpers” but does “the lion’s share of the work myself.”
In recent weeks, MAGA world has descended into bitter in-fighting with once-close allies in the fight to see Trump return to the Oval Office leaking embarrassing details about each other online.
O’Donnell is attempting to steer clear of the in-fighting and back-stabbing that has engulfed the “Stop the Steal” movement lately. “It’s embarrassing because you can’t be working on election integrity right now and not be painted with one of these brushes.”
“I’m not connected with any group; I want to work and do work with anybody,” O’Donnell said, adding that he’s trying to ignore the in-fighting “because it's all counterproductive and a distraction.”
One person O’Donnell is working with is Draza Smith, another so-called election expert who spoke at Lindell’s cyber symposium last August and addressed a Louisiana state commission in December to talk about how to reform voting laws in the state. A quick review of Smith’s Telegram account shows her affinity for QAnon content and COVID conspiracy theories pumped out by the bogus collective known as America’s Frontline Doctors. She also has multiple posts linked to antisemitic conspiracies about the Rothschilds.
Smith and O’Donnell are emblematic of the type of people who have become self-described election experts, making wild claims about Trump’s election loss. But elections are hugely complex and nuanced operations that require highly-skilled individuals to run smoothly.
“These individuals who do not appear to have any background in election administration are seriously oversimplifying this huge effort. Everybody thinks they can diagnose illness in themselves and their family with WebMD and everyone with Photoshop thinks they are an artist,” Shafer said.
“Election administration is a profession where trained individuals conduct this work under the direction of election officials and follow the laws and procedures in their jurisdiction. If people want to get involved in elections in our country, they should totally do that and volunteer to become poll workers, poll watchers, and work on voter registration drives. They would then learn a lot about the process.”